NEW YORK – Religion's role in politics and public policy is in the spotlight heading toward the midterm elections, yet relatively few Americans consider it crucial that a candidate be devoutly religious or share their religious beliefs, according to a poll released Tuesday by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Just 25 percent of Americans say it's very or extremely important that a candidate has strong religious beliefs, according to the poll. Only 19 percent consider it very or extremely important that a candidate shares their own beliefs, and nearly half say that's not very important or not important at all.
Still, most Americans see a role for religion in shaping public policy. A solid majority of Americans, 57 percent, want the influence of religion on government policy to extend beyond traditional culture war issues and into policies addressing poverty. Americans are more likely to say religion should have at least some influence on poverty than on abortion (45 percent) or LGBT issues (34 percent).
There is little public support for the campaign by some conservative religious leaders, backed by President Donald Trump, to allow clergy and religious organizations to endorse political candidates while retaining their tax exempt status. Such a change is opposed by 53 percent of Americans and supported by 13 percent. The rest expressed no opinion.
Trump's stance on political endorsements by clergy is one of many reasons he has retained strong support among white evangelical Christians, despite aspects of his behavior and personal life that don't neatly align with Christian values. The AP-NORC poll found that 7 in 10 white evangelical Protestants say they approve of Trump, a Republican.
The importance of a candidate's religious faith varied across religious and political groups.
Among white evangelical Protestants, 51 percent consider it very or extremely important that a candidate has strong religious beliefs. An additional 25 percent think it's moderately important. Far fewer Catholics and white mainline Protestants considered this important.
Roughly two-thirds of Republicans said it's at least moderately important that a candidate has strong religious beliefs, compared with 37 percent of Democrats.
Jack Kane, an accountant from Key West, Florida, was among the Republican-leaning poll participants who said it wasn't important to him whether a candidate was deeply religious.
"I'd much rather have a guy run the government and not spend all our money, instead of sounding off on what's going on in the church or on things like abortion," said Kane, 65, who describes himself as nonreligious. "Who is Catholic, Jewish, Southern Baptist — I could care less, as long as they're going to carry the torch of freedom."
Kent Jaquette, a Republican-turned-independent and a former United Methodist pastor who lives near San Antonio, said he does not base his choice of candidates on their religious faith.
"In politics, you need to look at a person where their morals are, where their values are," he said. "It may or may not have anything to do with their religion."
Jaquette also questioned the motives of evangelicals who support Trump.
"To me, it's supporting someone who gives no indication he intends to live a Christian life," said Jaquette, 63. "I believe that Christians should do things that Christ taught — feed the hungry, visit people in jail, help immigrants."
Veronica Irving, a 55-year-old Roman Catholic Republican who lives near Chicago, says it's extremely important to her that a politician has strong religious beliefs. She's disappointed that Trump doesn't demonstrate this more clearly through his behaviors and actions.
"It's not about what faith you come from — it's just important that you have faith," she said.
At the highest levels of political office, it's still rare for a politician to profess that he or she is an atheist; surveys indicate that roughly 10 percent of Americans do not believe in a higher power. In recent years, only a small handful of members of Congress have identified themselves as nonbelievers.
However, there is some evidence of increasing acceptance of religious diversity — for example, the recent victories by Muslim-American women in Democratic congressional primaries in Michigan and Minnesota.
The AP-NORC poll found broad interest in religion having at least some influence on a range of policy issues.
In addition to the concern about poverty, 49 percent of Americans want to see religion have some influence on education, 44 percent on health care policy, 43 percent on immigration, 38 percent on gun policy, 36 percent on income inequality, 34 percent on foreign policy and 32 percent on climate change.
From each of the largest religious groups, there was strong support for greater religious influence on poverty policy — 71 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 54 percent of white mainline Protestants, 75 percent of nonwhite Protestants and 67 percent of Catholics.
The Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian social justice organization Sojourners, said the poll findings signaled a potentially broader and more vibrant role for organized religion in U.S. politics.
"Religious issues are much broader and deeper and different from the issues chosen by the religious right," he said. "The issues like poverty, immigration, what happens to the homeless — those are becoming the moral and political and voting issues for more and more Christians."
The findings were welcomed by Maureen Malloy Ferguson, a senior policy adviser for The Catholic Association, which depicts its mission as "being a faithful Catholic voice in the public square."
"It's encouraging to see that so many Americans recognize that religion can be a force for good in society," she said.
However, attorney Emilie Kao, a religious-freedom expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, questioned whether faith-based organizations might face roadblocks in trying to expand their role in social services. Some jurisdictions, she noted, have sought to exclude religious organizations from various activities, such as adoption and foster care, because of opposition to same-sex marriage and other beliefs.
Associated Press Polling Editor Emily Swanson and AP writer Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.
The AP-NORC poll of 1,055 adults was conducted Aug. 16-20 using a sample drawn from NORC's probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research: http://www.apnorc.org